“Democracy is the worst form of Government…”

by Richard M. Langworth on 26 June 2009

It is fre­quently claimed that Win­ston Churchill once said “democ­racy is the worst form of gov­ern­ment, except for all the oth­ers” (or words to that effect). I have tried to locate the source of that quote, but I have not been able to trace it. Is it gen­uine, and if so, where and when? —D.C., Bogotá, Colombia

Churchill said it (House of Com­mons, 11 Novem­ber 1947)—but he was quot­ing an unknown pre­de­ces­sor. From Churchill by Him­self, page 574:

Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…

So, although these are Churchill’s words, he clearly did not orig­i­nate the famous remark about democ­racy. William F. Buck­ley, Jr., com­ment­ing on trick­ery in pres­i­den­tial debates, reminded us of Churchill’s reflec­tion when he wrote in June 2007: “We are made to ask what it is that polit­i­cal democ­racy gives us. The sys­tem is util­i­tar­ian. But is it a fit object of faith and hope?” Credit Churchill as pub­li­cist for an unsourced aphorism.

But here are some orig­i­nal things (included in Churchill by Him­self) that Churchill did say about democracy:

If I had to sum up the imme­di­ate future of demo­c­ra­tic pol­i­tics in a sin­gle word I should say “insur­ance.” That is the future—insurance against dan­gers from abroad, insur­ance against dan­gers scarcely less grave and much more near and con­stant which threaten us here at home in our own island. —Free Trade Hall, Man­ches­ter, 23 May 1909

At the bot­tom of all the trib­utes paid to democ­racy is the lit­tle man, walk­ing into the lit­tle booth, with a lit­tle pen­cil, mak­ing a lit­tle cross on a lit­tle bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or volu­mi­nous dis­cus­sion can pos­si­bly dimin­ish the over­whelm­ing impor­tance of that point. —House of Com­mons, 31 Octo­ber 1944

How is that word “democ­racy” to be inter­preted? My idea of it is that the plain, hum­ble, com­mon man, just the ordi­nary man who keeps a wife and fam­ily, who goes off to fight for his coun­try when it is in trou­ble, goes to the poll at the appro­pri­ate time, and puts his cross on the bal­lot paper show­ing the can­di­date he wishes to be elected to Parliament—that he is the foun­da­tion of democ­racy. And it is also essen­tial to this foun­da­tion that this man or woman should do this with­out fear, and with­out any form of intim­i­da­tion or vic­tim­iza­tion. He marks his bal­lot paper in strict secrecy, and then elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives and together decide what gov­ern­ment, or even in times of stress, what form of gov­ern­ment they wish to have in their coun­try. If that is democ­racy, I salute it. I espouse it. I would work for it.” —House of Com­mons, 8 Decem­ber 1944

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